Britain's air force was the first one in the world independent of a country's army or navy. It was formed in 1918 under the leadership of Major-General Sir Hugh Trenchard, who was also first Chief of Air Staff (CAS) in the newly-formed Air Ministry.

Military air power was first used for observation in 1794 (France), transport in 1862 (USA), and attack in 1911 (Italy against Turkey in Libya). The first military manoeuvres in Britain were in 1880, at Aldershot, and a balloon section of the Royal Engineers was formed in 1890. The first aeroplane to fly in Britain was in 1908, also at Aldershot. The Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was formed in 1912, including aeroplanes, balloons, and kites, and having a military wing, a naval wing, a flying school, an aircraft factory, and a reserve. This was the forerunner of the RAF. At first they thought the primary use of aeroplanes would be observational.

In the First World War Britain built the world's largest air force. At the end of the war we had 22647 aircraft, 103 airships, 671 aerodromes, and 290 000 personnel, compared to 155 aircraft and 7 airships at the beginning. In 1914 the largest was Germany's, with 246 aircraft and 5 zeppelins.

April 1917, "Bloody April", was the worst month of the war for the RAF: life expectancy for a pilot in France was two months. They lost 150 aircraft, 75 in the first week, and 316 crew: the Germans lost 370 aircraft.

Because of squabbling between them and the Army and Navy, the Air Force in 1919 created their own system of ranks, such as Group Captain, Wing Commander, Squadron Leader, and so on. You'd think I could find a complete listing of them on the RAF's own website, wouldn't you? Not a hope. Horrid website.

"Their finest hour" was of course the Battle of Britain in the Second World War, and this write-up would be far too long if I tried to say anything about that here.

The RAF today is divided into Strike Command and Personnel and Training Command. Strike Command HQ is at High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire. On 1 April 2000 it was divided into three groups: No 1 Group holds all the attack aircraft like Tornados and the new Eurofighter, except the Harriers; No 2 Group provides the support for frontline operations, such as air transport and air-to-air refuelling; and No 3 Group does joint support with the Navy, holding the Harriers as well as search-and-rescue and mountain rescue.

The largest RAF station is at Brize Norton in Gloucestershire, founded in 1937, and which is now the main base for large transporters. Others include RAF Marham in Norfolk, a bomber base; RAF Coltishall for fighers; RAF Northolt in London where the Queen's Flight is housed (so visiting world leaders are often received there); more transport at RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire; and 26 other "flying stations" if I've counted right. A flying station holds British aircraft. Two other bases, Fairford and Mildenhall, are USAF bases.

There are three RAF bases in Germany, one in Canada, and one each in the British territories of Ascension, Gibraltar, Akrotiri (in Cyprus), and the Falkland Islands.

Mainstay of the strike force is the Tornado GR1, first delivered in 1980. These are based at Lossiemouth in Scotland and Bruggen in Germany. The older Jaguar fighter-bombers are based at Coltishall. The famous Harrier Jump Jet is based largely at RAF Cottishall; and the main support helicopter is the Chinook.

The RAF roundel is three rings of blue (outside), white, and red. Motto: Per Ardua Ad Astra.

The RAF rank system is an awkward, and not neccesarily intuitive one, but I think what I have below is the bones of it. Firstly the officers, from lowest rank to highest:

  • Pilot Officer
  • Flying Officer
  • Flight Lieutenant (LEF-ten-ant, not LOO-ten-ant)
  • Squadron Leader
  • Wing Commander
  • Group Captain

These are the first few ranks, which form the bulk of the Air Force's pilots. These are identified by a varying number of stripes on their epaulettes. The officers above this rank are known as officers of Air Rank (equivalent to Field Rank in the Army). They have large amounts of gold on both their epaulettes and caps.

There is also a fairly standard ranking system for NCOs, it's just the officers who are complicated. They have Corporals (The equivalent to Lance Corporal is a Leading Airman, with a badge in the shape of a three bladed propellor), Sergeants, Flight Sergeants (equivalent to Colour Sergeant in the Army) and various ranks of technician.

If this is hideously flawed, which, to be fair, it could well be, please /msg me.


The RAF's rank system is, in part, based upon that of the Royal Navy. The Royal Navy is known as the Senior Service because it is the oldest (it was also the only Service to be formed by a Monarch, Queen Elizabeth I). The Army is next in precendence, followed by the Royal Air Force (the Junior Service). The ranks equate as follows, starting with the most junior and working up (RN=A=RAF):


NO RANK = NO RANK = Acting Pilot Officer (I was there once!)

Midshipman = 2nd Lieutenant = Pilot Officer (I am there now)

Sub Lieutenant = Lieutenant = Flying Officer

Lieutanant = Captain = Flight Lieutenant


Lieutenant Commander = Major = Squadron Leader

Commander = Lieutenant Colonel = Wing Commander

Captain = Colonel = Group Captain


*: Commodore = Brigadier = Air Commodore

**: Rear Admiral = Major-General = Air Vice Marshal

***: Vice Admiral = Lieutenant-General = Air Marshal

****: Admiral = General = Air Chief Marshal

*****: Admiral of the Fleet = Field Marshal = Marshal of the Royal Air Force

The very highest ranks are essentially honorary, although usually any four-star officer will be promoted five-star on elevation to the peerage (take Field Marshal Lord Brammall).

The RAF's actual rank slides also resemble those of the Royal Navy. Instead of gold braid, the RAF's ranks consist of alternating bands of navy blue, light blue and air force blue.

I think that the RAF system is actually very sensible; it is the only system that relates rank with task. The RAF's traditional organizational hierarchy would run Aircraft - Flight - Squadron - Wing - Group - Command - RAF. Thus, Pilot Officers and Flying officers command aircraft, Flight Lieutenants command flights, Squadron Leaders command Squadrons, and so on. This is actually very much the case today; a flight of airmen, say, in a Fighter Control bunker will still have a Flight Lieutenant as their flight commander.

Mention should be made of the Royal Air Force College at Cranwell, the oldest air academy in the world (formed initially in 1916).

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